Sonoma Valley Wine Tour
I’m going on a Sonoma Valley Wine Tour today with Platypus Wine Tours and I’m picked up at 10 am by a minibus soon after finishing my in-room breakfast. It’s 30 minutes over to Sonoma and we pick up various folks along the way – 13 in total – then we’re off for real. We will visit four wineries for tours and tastings throughout the day and all whilst being transported around so no worries about drink-driving.
First winery is Petroni Vineyards, which is up a narrow single track road cut into the hillside. It is a hilltop winery where they’ve burrowed out their own caves to store and mature the wines. We get given miniscule amounts of wine in our glasses but there are no spittoons and we get 6 wines to try in total so it probably amounts to a small glass in reality. And at 11 am! All very pleasant but I’m not going to buy anything because I’m travelling with hand luggage only on the plane home and I won’t get a bottle through airport security. They don’t sell any packaging either, not that I’d want to add on some hold luggage. Plus there would be customs duties to pay on top of the $30 – yes, thirty – price per bottle. And some wines were much more expensive. Thankfully there not too much pretentious twaddle about aromas and tastes from the guy hosting us at the winery and it was a good visit.
The weather is projected to be hot and sunny all day with the temperatures expected to reach 86º F but the tour bus has got air conditioning so all should be OK. Mayo Winery is the next winery, where we also have a good lunch of sandwiches provided by the tour after the tasting. Mayo is a small scale place, all very friendly: they only sell direct, not via distribution, which is interesting. The wine is again good with a nice Malbec to try plus a port. The chatter over lunch between everyone on the bus is warming up, like the weather, which is not a surprise given everyone’s had a tipple or two!
Onward next to Loxton Cellars, again very small scale, with Pinot Noir and Rose on offer here. All the places so far have had snippets of information to flesh out what they do, and why, and it’s all very interesting. There’s lovely scenery as well in the Sonoma Valley as we drive around. Lastly we arrive at B Wise Vineyards, which is not the winery but just a tasting shop by the roadside. The winery itself is apparently way up in the hills and would take too long to get there. Time is flying by and it’s already around 3 pm. There is an excellent Rose to start followed by a superb $30 blended red. I think about buying a bottle for drinking whilst I’m here but then realise I haven’t got a corkscrew to open it, so I’d have to take it to a restaurant – which is a perfectly acceptable practice in Napa – but corkage is usually around $10-20 so I decide against buying. The rest of the reds are also very good leading up to the finale of two seriously chunky bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon at $85 and $95 each per bottle. They are undoubtedly very, very nice… but not that nice. Portions served here are more generous than all the other stops and soon the table we’re seated at is rocking with laughter as the day’s alcohol intake takes it toll on us all, but it’s all in good humour and spirit.
I’m not sure if I’d have bought anything even without the issues involved with transporting the wine home. It’s still a lot of money to me to pay for a bottle of wine and you do only get a small amount to taste on which to make a decision for something reasonably expensive. But that wasn’t the main reason for doing the tour, it was more about seeing the wineries, hearing their stories, sampling for possible future reference or purchase, and having a great day out – which I did. I’m the last off the bus, having been first on, and it’s almost 6 pm by the time Steve drops me back at my hotel. He was an excellent driver and guide. And I’m not drunk either, which is good, just slight merry! Platypus Wine Tours, certainly the Join-In tour I did, are excellent and I can highly recommend them.
Back To Downtown Joe’s
Back at the hotel I confirm a band is on tonight at Downtown Joe’s via their website, so that’s where I head out to. It’s not very busy at all as the Used Blues Band setup – at least that’s who the flyer on the wall says is playing tonight but they don’t look like this band on their Facebook page so maybe there’s been a last minute replacement – and it soon bizarrely gets emptier before the band starts. I order some Shredded Pork Nachos which are not very good but fill me up and try some of their stout ale, which is good. The band kicks off with an instrumental and they sound promising. The drummer takes lead vocals for now, the lead guitarist is an old black guy wearing a Buddy Guy Legends denim jacket and he can clearly play his stuff. But then this other black guy comes on and takes over lead vocals, and over the next hour things degenerate. He’s clearly the dominant leader in the band, although there’s some banter between all the band members. But after some promising tunes – he’s got a reasonable voice – they start playing what I can only describe as soul “parodies” of stuff like O’Jays and Temptations songs, with the vocalist trying to perform impersonations of David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and others. The lead vocalist keeps talking about “keeping the blues alive” but this ain’t the blues, it’s Philly & Motown imitation crap – and a bloody awful imitation at that. It’s very disappointing.
I keep giving him another chance after each song, then another, and another, but it’s just crap. Absolute crap. Amazingly the bar has now filled up a bit but the band are not getting rapturous applause and it seems more like an ego trip for the lead singer to show his mates – assuming he has any – that he can sing in a number of different styles. He should stick to one style – his, if he has one – and interpret the classics – blues, soul, whatever – in his own way, and not try to imitate note for note the greats, which is just a pointless exercise. I’m afraid I forgot to make a note of the band’s name, I wanted to mention it so that you could avoid them at all costs. I’ve had enough and depart for bed, very disappointed.
My Own Napa Valley Tour
Next day, on a bright and sunny morning, I head out at 9.50 am, after an in-room breakfast, up the Napa Valley on the Silverado Trail on the way to Silverado Vineyards. It’s lovely scenery on the way there, completely blue skies, with even higher temperatures predicted than yesterday. I arrive inside at 10.20 am: the winery is up a hillside with great views across the valley and it’s clearly a large scale enterprise, unlike the places yesterday. I’d booked a tour yesterday by phone and in the shop area a guy says Ray will be out to meet me shortly. Ray arrives and we start to chat about football, England, wine and more. “Shall we get started”, he then says. Turns out I’m on a tour of one, a personal estate tour if you will. Ray takes me through the property, past the vats, all the processing gear and more. All very interesting, lots of chat and Q&A, no issue from Ray that it’s just me, great personal service. We can’t go outside into the vines for some reason, which I thought we’d do on this tour, but it’s no big deal. Then I start tasting – at 11.15 am!
Which is after being given a Sauvignon Blanc on arrival at 10.20 am, followed by a Rose at 10.30 am to sip as we set off on the tour… and when I arrived there were already people in there supping away at some red wine!
So after the tour I’m fed half a dozen red wine samples and by 12 noon I know it’s time to stop otherwise I won’t be able to drive. It’s stunning scenery from the tasting terrace but sadly I was not impressed much by any of the wines. At least not for drinking alone without food and I think that’s partly the problem with these and yesterday’s tastings. It’s a $30+ bottle of wine and as such it’s really not meant to be drunk – to my mind anyway – on its own but I personally find it impossible to say which wine would go best with beef, or pork, or lamb. Which would make selection difficult, even if I were interested in taking some back home. And it’s drinking, not tasting as I do in France, as there’s no spittoons here. I’m not an expert on wine tasting, certainly not at this perceived level and bottle price, and I don’t have the palate or nose to taste ‘properly’ – but as yesterday, it’s all part of the fun and experience.
Lunch In Calistoga
I’m on the road again after drinking copious amounts of water to ensure I’m safe to drive and I head up to Calistoga for lunch. It’s a lovely little town and the Calistoga Roastery served the best turkey on wheat sandwich of the whole trip, with a good potato salad, for about $10. But I must stop buying iced tea – which sometimes seems like the only non-fizzy or soda beverage on offer – because I really don’t like it. Whilst eating lunch in the cafe I work out my route back down the Napa Valley then set off again – in the blistering heat (92º F and counting) with not a cloud in the sky – for the Beringer Vineyards winery. There’s a film crew there doing something, and the place is a bit corporate for my liking, with high prices to match. Silverado was a paid tour that included tastings but I know the winerys don’t offer free tastings in their shops, you have to either do a tour or pay $25, sometimes more, to taste at a shop bar or a tasting room. Not that I should have any more wine considering I’m driving.
Back down the road towards Napa and onto Robert Mondavi Winery, which I had visited before many years ago. I don’t really remember it from then apart from the entrance but it’s very impressive today. They do tours at $35 which might have been nice, as it looked longer and appeared to offer more than the Silverado tour, but the timings are not right for my schedule. It was the best winery so far even though I didn’t taste anything or do a tour.
Onto my last stop, The Hess Collection. And what a drive up to it – it’s right up in the hills with a great twisty road through the forest. There’s an art gallery here too, quite a famous one apparently. With some really weird stuff on display. Is it art? No idea but that’s possibly questionable in regards of some pieces. It was however very interesting. Nice drive as I said but it’s quite a reasonable distance off the main Napa route, Highway 29, and there are no scenic views at the top as the tree cover obscures everything. Anyway, another good experience and well worth the trip up into the hills.
Arrive back at the hotel and it’s time to pack the suitcase, then it’s off out for dinner at the Atlas Social (which since I visited Napa has now closed). I wandered around town a bit looking for places to eat – having decided to go somewhere new and not visit Downtown Joe’s again, the major reason being is that it was karaoke night – and this place looked the best option. It turned out to be a good choice. The place was very busy and didn’t seem to have any free tables and I only just managed to get a seat at the bar. I had a small portion of chicken wings and some Grenache wine for sustenance and the barman was friendly. I ended up chatting for most of the evening to a local Napa lady who’d sat next to me at the bar. We never exchanged names but she was very friendly, having arrived with someone else who then left so she turned to talk to me. It turns out she’d never done the PCH but she had been to London, so we had a good chat about loads of different stuff – finally on this trip! – and I politely suggested she do the PCH. 🙂
As it was getting late, I made my excuses and left. To bed! And tomorrow is game day…